November 23 at 6:37 PM
EAU CLAIRE, Wis. — Two years ago, before Donald Trump was elected, Anna Rybicki would not have been seated at the dining room table at her home on Rust Street, devising a school reform strategy with five allies. She would not have attended a three-day community organizing workshop or made a pitch to the school board.
“It has changed my life, him getting elected,” said Rybicki, 39, a lawyer who has been a stay-at-home mother since 2011. “I never cried; I mobilized. That’s what felt good to me. I went to every meeting of everything.”
Since the eruption of nationwide anti-Trump protests in January 2017, a central question has been whether the energy would persist. The signs in Wisconsin so far have been positive for Democrats: They unexpectedly won a state Supreme Court race in April and flipped a reliably Republican state Senate seat in June. On Nov. 6, they defeated GOP Gov. Scott Walker for the first time in four tries. The statewide turnout percentage was among the highest in the country.
In Eau Claire, population 68,000, voters toppled a Republican-appointed judge and elected liberal City Council candidates this year. That pointed to an unexpected development: Democratic activism spurred by a national election is being channeled into changes at the local level.
For Rybicki and Erica Zerr, it is an effort to change the middle school science curriculum and open a public charter school. For Bill Hogseth, it is a voting rights campaign. For Becca Cooke, it is the advancement of women in business. For Amy O’Connor, it is work at a cultural center and support for an array of liberal causes.
The alternative was to “wake up every morning and check Twitter and be furious every day,” said O’Connor, who shapes theater and arts offerings at a new performing arts center in Eau Claire. Confronting a feeling that “everything is lost,” as she put it, she aimed “to build something positive as my form of protest.”
“The sense of civic engagement has never been higher,” said Rep. Ron Kind (D), who this month won a 12th term in his western Wisconsin district, which includes Eau Claire. “There are a lot of people I’ve never met, and I’ve never known before, coming out of the woodwork. I think it’s real.”
Voters cast ballots at a polling station in Wauwatosa, Wis., on Nov. 6, 2018. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)
North of Eau Claire, Wren Keturi is a Democrat who ran for State Assembly in a district that Republican Rob Summerfield won in 2016 with 64 percent of the vote. She fell short in November, yet what struck her as she navigated long rural driveways to knock on doors was an openness to engage on local issues, from schools to roads and bridges.
“Folks are tired of how hateful things got,” said Keturi, 29, a former teachers union organizer. “Most people want to have conversations with their neighbors, but they don’t know how when they disagree on big [national] issues.”
Trump was the first Republican presidential candidate to win Wisconsin since 1984, beating Hillary Clinton by about 23,000 votes among 3 million cast. A host of counties and rural communities in western Wisconsin supported him, although Eau Claire, a former industrial town 90 miles east of Minneapolis, stayed blue.
Hogseth, a wildlife biologist, wondered in early 2017 what he would tell his young children 15 years later if he did nothing. “I didn’t want to tell my kids, ‘Well, I was busy.’ ” He devoured the organizing manual of the Indivisible political group, began reading about political movements and called a meeting with a Facebook post. He was unsure who would show up, but felt he had to do something.
Seventy-five people turned out. Within a few weeks, the nascent chapter of Indivisible had grown to 1,500 members, he said. They wrote scores of letters demanding that Trump release his taxes. Some joined the 715 Group, created by Cooke and named for the local telephone area code, which pooled campaign contributions from young voters to maximize their access and influence.
But as the months went by, the Indivisible organization splintered.
“The resistance model kind of ran out of steam,” Hogseth, 38, said, with “people feeling like they were beating their heads against the wall. Going to town hall meetings, calling Congress, writing letters, reacting to the news cycle. People wanted to be working for something rather than against something.”
That was Zerr’s story. A Montessori teacher raised in South Dakota, she had campaigned briefly for Barack Obama in 2008 but otherwise was “simply complacent,” as she put it. Trump’s election was a “punch in the gut,” she said.
Zerr, 35, credits the early Indivisible meetings with giving her the confidence — and the contacts — to push a science learning model for middle schoolers that put her in front of the school board with Rybicki in December. As she sat in Rybicki’s dining room, coaching new colleagues, she said, “This is the first time I’ve led a community-wide effort.”
Trump’s election changed Rybicki, too, shifting her focus from being “polite and well-liked and private. I don’t like going out on a limb. It’s a risk. There could be disrespect and unpleasantness and it could be uncomfortable.”
“I connect with the protest sign I once saw: ‘So bad, even introverts are here,’ ” she said. “This is just too important to keep playing it safe.”
Almost immediately after the election, Rybicki volunteered to register voters. She invited neighbors to her house for drinks. She started a book group. She attended Indivisible meetings. She searched for female mentors, telling herself, “I need to figure out how to make a difference.” The day after a white-supremacist gathering in Charlottesville left counterprotester Heather Heyer dead, Rybicki and a friend organized a rally in a public park. More than 150 people attended.
“It’s so cool to feel communities coming together,” Rybicki said, “feeling that warmth, feeling connected.”
The sensation is familiar to O’Connor, who recalled that upward of 100 people ventured out to raise money for the Family Support Center, a nonprofit organization focused on helping those affected by domestic and sexual violence. Also, the gathering of the new Midwest Feminist group to increase funding of the Red Letter Grant, Cooke’s effort to support female entrepreneurs.
“There’s an accountability about having a group fighting together,” she said. “I can’t say, ‘I’m tired,’ or ‘I’m busy.’ It’s not really an option, because I know they’re tired and busy, too.”
Cooke, 30, may be the most experienced figure in party politics among the crowd of young Eau Claire liberals. She served as finance director for Democratic candidates in four states before moving back to town in 2015 to open a store, Red’s Mercantile. She considered getting out of politics, but after Trump’s victory, an exit didn’t feel right.
“People started coming to me: ‘What do we do?’ ” Cooke explained, “because we had this women-charged message coming out of the store. We’re cultivating a feeling that you’re connected, that you’re not just by yourself, that you’ve got your girls backing you up.”
Jodi Emerson has seen the impact. After working on human-trafficking issues, she became a first-time candidate for office, winning a State Assembly seat this month. Noting a growing brigade of volunteers one Sunday afternoon as she canvassed for votes, she said, “There’s a feeling out there of people saying, ‘I can’t sit out.’ Some people join the military to serve their country. Some people knock on doors to serve their country.”
Hogseth turned to voting rights, registering people to vote and helping others locate documents to comply with Wisconsin’s voter ID law. He is also lobbying for a state law requiring automatic voter registration. He recruited trainers to work with volunteers and attended community organizing sessions in Milwaukee and Eau Claire to hone his skills.
“It has become all-consuming,” said Hogseth, who added that he has no regrets. “However it does turn out, I feel I’ve gone on a journey. I’m very different from who I was a year ago,” he said. “And in a place I totally thought that I knew, it has revealed a new version of my hometown to me.